Autism to many is a scary term. It is a diagnosis that no parent wants to hear.

Many parents, who struggle to find out what is wrong with their child, are relieved to receive a definitive diagnosis. This gives the family and service providers a place to start in helping the child mature and develop into a contributing member of society.

On Wednesday, over 600 people attended an Autism Awareness Conference at Slippery Rock University. The program was very comprehensive and provided educators, college students and parents with new information, methods and materials to use with their children.

Dr. Kathleen Strickland, interim dean of the college of education at SRU, chaired the conference. She has a personal reason for wanting to learn more and for helping educators and families: Her grandson was diagnosed 10 years ago. She shares that her family has been on a journey and she is so pleased with the progress her grandson has made.

I attended the conference as a reporter and as a grandmother with a granddaughter who has recently be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Asperger’s syndrome is a complex developmental disability marked by impairments in socialization, communication, cognition and sensation.

By accident, I ended up in a workshop talking about how to help these children learn the social skills that help us all function in society.

A curriculum for educators, service providers and parents, ECLIPSE is available to provide training for people working with children along the autism spectrum and especially those with Asperger’s syndrome. It also provides the tools to be used with students.

Skills that most people pick up as they mature are very difficult for these children to comprehend.

Executive function skills are the skills that give humans the ability to choose and direct much of their behaviors successfully. This set of skills is also difficult for children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, said Delilah Wilcox, presenter from NHS Autism School Carlisle, during her workshop.

Everything was new and it had been a long time since I had taken courses in the psychology of the exceptional child.

The ECLIPSE curriculum targets the skills needed to improve academic achievement, employment performance, social competence, independent living skills and adaptive skills.

Wilcox pointed out that these students become very good at smiling and nodding to appear that they are part of the group or conversation, but may not have the ability to interpret what is going on.

Much of the presentation was presented in education jargon that most of the participants understood. I found that I was constantly looking for definitions for terms, however, but those that were given used terms that I do not commonly use.

What I found so encouraging was that educators and service providers were learning to access new programs and materials to help them work with children like my granddaughter. Pressley Ridge, who provides counseling services for my granddaughter and the rest of her family, was one of the major sponsors for the event.

The final presentation was given by members of a young adult support group from Butler County. These young people ranged in age from 18 to 28 and have been diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s. It was very inspiring to listen to these young people willingly share their experiences in the community and in school. One young man told of mentoring a third-grade student as part of his senior project. This has to be encouraging for the third grader as well as for his teacher.

“Who better to mentor him than someone who has lived it?” Strickland said.

A trade show provided opportunities to learn about facilities, materials and services that can help educators and families work with children across the autism spectrum.

“Autism spectrum” was a new term to me, but it is such a good descriptive term. I equate it to a rainbow: The rainbow is a spectrum of color; each hue is part of the whole rainbow, but each hue is different. Those that are diagnosed with autism all fall under that label--but each person is different.

If each person who attended the conference takes some new awareness back to their colleagues and families, as Strickland encouraged, perhaps more people on the autism spectrum will better receive the help they need to be productive yet individual members of society.

Carol Ann Gregg is a staff writer at Allied News.

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